When I asked to meet with Travis Hepler through a Facebook message, I was not sure what to expect. I had never spoken to a furry face to face, and only really had seen them from afar or on TV where they were portrayed as nothing more than a fetish, or as someone to be avoided.
Yet, as he joined me in full suit at the small plastic table, extending a paw to shake hello, he was friendly and familiar. We talked about the surprisingly warm weather given recent snow and about aspects of his suit which I was curious about. He then began to tell me about what it actually means to be a furry.
There are a minority of furries called “plushifiles,” who are interested in a more sexual component of the lifestyle. However, the majority of furries, according to Hepler, are simply interested in anthropomorphic animals and art. Hepler mentioned that he became interested in furries because of an interest in drawing cartoons, a hobby which he’s pursued for most of his adult life.
“When I was in middle school and me and my cousin were in the same classroom,” said Hepler, “we would draw comics to each other. Occasionally, she would draw these characters which had animal characteristics to them… I thought that was kind of cool, combining animals with humans. That kind of kept going, and then I got to google and one thing led to another, and I found out what furries were…It’s now just an extension of my personality.”
The character which Hepler has created, Kai, is something which he calls a “fursona.”
“A fursona,” Hepler said, “is a play on ‘persona.’ It just really means what your character is. For example, my drawings and my costume are my fursona. But like I said, it might by an alternate personality or an extension of a personality.”
A fursona is not a necessary part of being a furry, as some people can just admire the artwork and the lifestyle. Yet, creating a character and being able to role-play with it, can be an integral part to the lifestyle. A person can have just one fursona, variations upon a fursona, or completely different ones depending on the day. The only time that a specific fursona really needs to be cemented, is to create a fursuit.
Though many furries do not own a fursuit, they are probably the most iconic part of the furry lifestyle. The fursuit itself is made of a combination of sewed pieces, and hot glue. According to Hepler, fursuits typically cost around $5000 to make, though he got his for a steal at about $2000.
“This guy said he would do my design for $2000, but [he] wanted to do it [his] way,” said Hepler. “I went for it. Even if it didn’t look exactly how I wanted it to, you come out in a full suit and people start walking by and complimenting you, and it makes it worth it. ”
The suits, much like the characters themselves, are highly customizable, and can vary greatly between characters. They can have eyes and snouts which move, fur, scales, ears with fans built in and thousands of other combinations. Many fursuits are of animals which may not really exist, and are all part of the unique design of the character.
“There have actually been people who create new species all together, it doesn’t have to be a combination of animals, it can just be its own thing. Like I said, it’s just an art genre for the most part. The suit is just a little extra icing on the cake,” said Hepler.
The characters they portray are typically based on original concepts. Hepler’s’ character is a combination of a silver fox and a snow leopard. They are typically based on drawings or other forms of art which are created around fursonas and then are brought to life by companies which specialize in fursuit creation. It’s big business at its finest, a cash cow to create personalized mascot costumes. As Hepler said, “it’s just good old fashioned capitalism.”
As we sat there talking, several people came up to give him hugs, or to comment on his costume. One guy came over and said, “you’re awesome man.”
Though I couldn’t see his face, I could hear the smile in his voice as Hepler said, “see that? That’s what makes it all worth it.”
Hepler has become something of a celebrity around UNCG. Deemed the “UNCG furry,” he often has people coming up to him commenting on his suit. When he began fursuiting around campus, Twitter and the now retired Yik Yak went wild. Searches for “UNCG fox” or “UNCG furry” cluttered the search bars.
“People were saying: ‘there’s a furry on campus!’ And I was saying ‘Great!’ At least they know what a furry is!”
To Hepler, the most worthwhile part of being a furry are these kinds of interactions. “When I’m walking around on campus, whether people thought it was weird, funny or cool, people smiled and laughed which makes me feel good. It may just be a regular Tuesday, but thanks to me, something different happened. They’re smiling for some reason.”